By Jonathan Angel
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a people subject to the British Empire. They worked hard to sustain their livelihoods, but tensions led to British officers firing upon crudely armed villagers. Eventually, this spark was fanned into widespread discontent of British rule; the people shucked the colonial yoke in favor of a new republic.
Over the course of decades, investment reformed the economy. The population exploded on both sides of the great river that divided the nation. And in 2011, protests against the autocratic president were met with water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Then on January 28, in the midst of these protests, the internet was disabled (probably at the government’s demand) nationwide.
America and Egypt have so much in common, from money to innovation to founding history. Thus, it is most surprising to learn that President Barack Obama and the United States Federal Government continue to speak support for the Egyptian autocratic president, Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, who clearly disregards the liberties of his citizens, even as they clamor for self-rule, for changes, for freedom.
Over the past two months, the Middle East has been in perhaps the greatest state of internal unrest since World War II. From the collapse of Lebanon’s pro-western coalition government to the night flight of Tunisia’s pro-western dictator from his post to the ever-more-forceful protests in other countries, especially pro-western Egypt and Yemen, the region may be headed towards an era of greater individual freedoms and less acquiescence on U.S. political interests.
In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama extended a hand of friendship to the Muslim world – “A New Beginning,” to use the words of the speech title. He noted that America and Islam share the common higher principles of “justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” He commended Morocco for being the first nation to recognize the fledgeling U.S.
Why, then, would Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stress just days before Ben Ali’s flight that “we are not taking sides” in this fight for [Tunisian] democracy? Even after a July 2009 State Department cable (classified, but released by Wikileaks) cited that Tunisia had “serious human rights problems” and that “major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali’s departure,” the U.S. continued to insist on supporting Ben Ali until the day he fled the country.
The State Department, had it been more astute, would have enjoined support for the Tunisian people; its own cable stated that “most still admire … the American dream.” Instead, we’re likely viewed now at best as self-interested imbeciles without moral consciences.
The great news is that we have been given a second chance, an opportunity to form a lasting relationship with a people that will, whether tomorrow or in ten years, get rid of President Mubarak and install a truly democratic leader.
Second chances rarely come around, and when they do, it’s often at great cost. It took an attack on Pearl Harbor for us to reconsider entering World War II, despite the danger the Axis powers posed. Let’s not demand a second Pearl Harbor to learn our lesson this time.
The U.S. has long shared a special relationship with Egypt. From the Camp David Accords to the nearly $2 billion annual aid sent to support Egypt’s economic and military might, the two countries have a complex history of support.
Does the U.S. have the guts to make that support dependent upon reform? Is freedom worth risking a friendly relationship with a dictator?
That relationship should not hinder us from pushing unabashedly for much greater democratization in Egypt; it certainly didn’t hinder President Mubarak from unabashedly ordering crackdowns on nonviolent protests.